Archive for September, 2011

Hollywood and the Big Bang

Do you watch “The Big Bang Theory”?  I have, but stay tuned, I’ve got more to say.

I didn’t watch it until it went on re-runs a few weeks ago, but that’s because I don’t watch prime time TV, I’ve got better things to do.  Like write and blog.  I only picked it up when it came to the local CW channel, which seems to support itself with re-runs of shows that are still on prime time but from other networks.  I’d watched a few seconds of it very occasionally, not enough to get a real flavor of the show, but for the past several weeks I’ve seen enough to learn what it’s about.  I must say I’m appalled.

First of all, the show is funny, yes, Hollywood screenwriters can make a joke about anything, and I can see why it stays on the air.  Much of the science that’s displayed is well researched, but it’s the way the scientists who are the main characters are portrayed that bothers me.  Sheldon, in particular.

I’ve been a scientist for most of my life, ever since before high school when I began to follow the US space program, such as it was.  (Remember the V-2 rockets we captured from the Germans?)  I’ve known a lot of scientists (and physicians, who are scientists in the field of medicine), but I’ve never met, seen, or even heard of a scientist like Sheldon.  The portrayal of Sheldon as a scientist is so bad it isn’t even a caricature of a scientist.

Granted, the characters on a Hollywood sit-com are written solely to get a laugh, and that’s all that’s required of them.  That part I have no quarrel with.  What annoys me about Sheldon is that the extension of his scientific abilities into the comedic is so far removed from reality that it distorts the real science that could be portrayed.  In all my years in the laboratory or the library or at scientific meetings, I’ve never seen someone as cut off from his fellow scientists as Sheldon.  Most scientists that I’ve ever met are people like everyone else.  They have their own desires and fears, they have friends (and enemies), they like a lot of the things that others in our society like, including cars (Sheldon doesn’t drive!), and they relate to others reasonably well–and that’s one of the most important factors.  Most scientists relate well to others because the vast majority of scientific finds nowadays are made by groups of people, each of which makes his/her own contribution to the overall discovery.  Granted, a few isolated scientists in the world may exist, doing their own thing in total anonymity, but there’s no evidence they’re as anti-social as Sheldon.

A few details:  Sheldon is so erudite he insults people with big words and the people don’t even know they’re being insulted.  And he does it repeatedly.  But at the same time, he’s so unfamiliar with many social conventions he doesn’t understand why the average person (his friends on the show) do what they do, or why they react that way in regular society.  He’s so arrogant he can’t relate well to other people, and totally sexless, even toward his girl-friend who’s sexless too!  He apparently doesn’t have testicles and/or hormones.  He’s so totally wrapped up in himself that he feels he can’t do anything wrong, yet his life is one big social mistake after another, a concept he can’t understand.  He goes about his business totally oblivious to others, never caring, never stopping to offer a word of advice, encouragement or help.  And he revels in it.  Apparently, the basic concept behind Sheldon is that he’s so intelligent–way beyond Einstein– that his intellect tells him to disdain other human company, and that sex is “messy.”

I’ve never known someone as cut off from human emotion as Sheldon.  Not scientists nor any one else.  It’s so totally unrealistic, I don’t understand why the producers of the show decided to go this far to get a laugh.  Is this the view of science we get from Hollywood?  Is this what Hollywood thinks of science?  I hope not.

But will I continue to watch the show?  I have mixed feelings.  It is funny, well-produced (outside the insult to science), and the girl is cute, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle the anger that might result.  ‘Nuff said.

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African and American?

I don’t particularly like the term “African-American.”  My reasons have nothing to do with racism and before you go off half-cocked and accuse me of political incorrectness, let me say that I’m talking about the term itself, not the people to whom it refers.  I don’t like the term because it perpetuates an incorrect assumption.  It’s usually used to refer to blacks (i.e., persons of Negro race) who can trace their decent to emigres from Africa (either forced or willing) in many cases hundreds of years ago.  If that seems reasonable, it isn’t applied consistently.

For example, I can trace my heritage back through Wales (on my father’s side) and Germany (on my mother’s side).  But I’m not “Welsh-American,” nor do I consider myself “German-American.”  To me, a German-American would be someone who travels to the United States from Germany, settles down, gets a job, and takes US citizenship.  That person’s children would be American (only).   Likewise for a Welsh-American.  Similarly, an “African-American” would be a first-generation African who becomes an American citizen.

I like to use the example of President Barack Obama.  He’s much more of a real “African-American” than most.  His father was an African (from Kenya) who came to the US to study (though he seems to have done other things as well), fathered a child by a white woman (a US citizen), and left after Barack, Jr. was born.  Barack Obama, Sr. never obtained US citizenship so he wasn’t really African-American, but the boy who grew up to be President is a lot closer than the vast majority of those we call African-American in the US today.

But we use the term “African-American” to refer to all blacks.  That’s unrealistic and it doesn’t apply.  Many blacks, if not most, were born in the US and have never been to Africa.  They aren’t “African-American.”  They’re just plain American.  They’re just as much American as anyone else born in the USA, and to single them out because of their heritage is at best unnecessary, and at worst, discriminatory.  If I can’t call myself German-American, why should we refer to others born in the US as “African-American?”  We’re using the power of language–a very powerful tool and one that should be used with care and concern–to continue a segregation event that was started many years ago, and I suggest it should be terminated.  What do you think?


Literature and 9/11

I’ve never been a politically oriented person.  I don’t hold politicians in much high regard, and I do as little as I can to have anything to do with them, though I do vote every chance I get.  (The duties of a citizen rise above the politics of the state.)  I have my own political beliefs, though I’m not going to say anything about them here because that’s not the thrust of this blog.  As a scientist and a currently unpublished novelist, I decided to look back at the literature of 9/11, and leave the politicians and their ilk to wax philosophical all by themselves.  9/11 was a sword to the gut of the United States, no doubt about it, and I hate to see it used as a rallying point for the political aspirations of elected officials.

What brought this subject to my attention was an article, “The Literature of 9/11,” by Kevin Nance in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Poets & Writers magazine.  I hadn’t thought too much on the subject, and I enjoyed the article as a summary of the situation.  To put it as simply as possible, there hasn’t been much written about 9/11.  At least not something that has captured the public’s imagination in the way that The Naked and the Dead or Catch-22 or South Pacific did after World War II, or one of my favorites, Charlie Company, did after Vietnam.  We haven’t seen any poetry yet to rival In Flanders’ Fields, either.  As someone who, belatedly I admit, studies literature, I have to say I haven’t read any of the books that have been published on 9/11.  I am familiar with one of the most celebrated books published so far on the subject, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I haven’t read it.  I suspect I will in the next few months, now that I’ve been brought up to date on the issue.  But there are other novels too, and should be read by an informed public.

What about the readers of this blog?  What have you read related to 9/11?  Did they enhance or change your understanding of the reasons behind the attacks?  Or did they leave you looking for answers elsewhere?

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From Bubonicon 43

Last weekend (August 26-28, 2011) I attended the science fiction conference here in Albuquerque, Bubonicon 43.  This is my third year to attend and they’re always entertaining and informative.  A few comments and observations follow.

The first panel discussion I attended was “I Know It When I See It:  What Exactly Is SF”  A lot of opinions from the members of the panel, and even from the audience, but the basic lesson that I took from the discussion was that everybody has his/her own opinion of exactly what SF really is.  No good definition emerged from the panel.  You just have to make up your own mind.

Two panel discussions took place on Self-Publishing.  (The con has a panel discussion on this every year.  Well, at least there’s been one every year I’ve attended.)  There’s several self-publishing options out there, from digital to vanity presses.  Names thrown out included Lulu, Smashwords, Lightning Source, Kobo, and CreateSpace.  Follow their guidelines to the letter.  Different members of the panels (all who had self-published at least one book) had their own personal preferences as to how to go about self-publishing, and some did not like one of the most popular, Smashwords, even though it can be accessed directly from your Microsoft Word manuscript.  There are a lot of scams out there, too, and several suggested reading the Scam Alert on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website, SFFWA.  Some discussion was on pricing, especially on digital books through, for example, Amazon, such as having a sale price of $0.99 for a short time to interest people, or by providing the first chapter or so for free.  Oddly, Amazon’s pricing structure yields a return to the author of 70% if your book is between $2.99 and $7.99, but only 35% if it’s higher or lower.  Obviously they’re pushing something, but I’m not sure what.

I went to a reading by George R.R. Martin and enjoyed it immensely.  I loved his writing, his ability to turn a phrase and bring you into his fantasy world.  I don’t normally read fantasy, but perhaps I will pick up one of his books and get immersed in his world.  (Don’t worry, I’ll pay for the book.)

I think my favorite session was a solo talk by Connie Willis (who just won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for her latest book Blackout/All Clear).  Her topic was “Irony In Action,” a literary device she uses regularly.  But irony is such a hard concept to define.  I tried it not long ago.  See my blog on the subject, April 24, 2011.  Irony involves discrepancies, tension, paradoxes, difficulty in pinning things down.   Irony is indirect and nuanced.  Irony requires someone to figure things out for him/herself.   Irony can engender strong emotions or a dull ache, pity or amusement.  Irony is present in our daily lives, and doesn’t merely exist in fictional life.  The fact that the Titanic was considered “unsinkable” is a fabulous irony lost on almost no one.  Connie likes Shakespeare as the most ironic writer to ever live.  Okay.

In short, a great weekend at the end of the summer.  I always enjoy the con, and will certainly be back next year.

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